May 20, 2009
One of the true pleasures of science reporting is listening to scientists describe algae, rocks or black holes with passion. They recollect the countless overnighters in the lab during graduate school. Some are brought to tears recalling when a problem they were investigating just made sense.
Unfortunately, by the time these interviews are translated into a news or magazine article, many of their personal stories are lost. Journalists often use 10 percent or less of the material they gather during research for a story, and so interesting and emotional details are lost forever in Word documents or mp3s.
Oral histories are the way to keep these stories alive and available to the public. They are valuable because they record individual memories at a particular place and time. (For a full discussion of their value, and a complete list of science-related projects, see “Oral History of American Science: A Forty Year Review” [PDF] by Ronald E. Doel.)
In the 20th century, dozens of archival oral science history projects were started in the United States. Most, like the Laser History Project and the Cornell Cold Fusion Archive, focused on a specific niche. Unfortuantely, very few audio files from these projects have been digitized, but many transcripts are available online.
Here are three stories captured by oral history:
Apollo 11, the first manned mission to land on the Moon in 1969, may be the Apollo everyone remembers, but Apollo 8, the first manned space voyage in 1968, was just as groundbreaking. “Apollo 8 was about leaving and Apollo 11 was about arriving,” says former astronaut Michael Collins, in the above audio documentary. “When you look back 100 years from now, which will be more important?”
2. Computer Etymology – Computer Oral History Collection
Long before the iMac, a computer was a person that made mathematical calculations. But By the 1930s, scientists were imagining and creating mechanical computers. According to the inventor the electronic digital computer [PDF], John Vincent Atanasoff (1903-1995), “from 1932 onward, we called those things computers—we just allowed the context to differentiate between whether the computer was a man or a machine. “
3. Twin Study – Oral History of Human Genetics Project
Victor McKusick (1921-2008) is considered the father of clinical medical genetics, the use of genetics to diagnose and treat disease. He cites a stay in Massachusetts General Hospital with a strep infection as the beginning of his path towards medicine: “I would have ended up a lawyer if it weren’t for the microaerophilic streptococcus,” McKusick said on tape. An environmental factor, he added, as law was the calling for his twin brother Vincent, who later became a Maine Supreme Court justice.
– by Joseph Caputo
May 15, 2009
The ocean is getting warmer, higher and more acidic due to climate change. How well will coral reefs respond to such stresses?
To find out, a team of researchers led by the University of Texas at Austin is looking to corals’ genes. Sequencing a genome can take years, but a new method developed by the UT researchers reduced that time frame to one month. They focused on the nearly 11,000 genes that the coral actually uses, instead of the unused genes and DNA bits that make up most of the organism’s genome.
The scientists tested their method on the Pacific coral, Acropora millepora, and hope to see an explosion in research about coral adaption and evolution as a result.
– by Joseph Caputo
February 26, 2009
Six-o-clock in the morning is when the action begins at the National Zoo. Think you’re grumpy without breakfast? Just imagine how Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, two of the Zoo’s giant pandas, would feel without their bamboo.
Yesterday morning, I joined a zoo employee in a truck marked, “The Bamboo Never Stops,” as he delivered approximately 250 stalks of the treasured plant to the pandas, apes, elephants and several other species that enjoy the low protein, high fiber content of the leaves and stalks.
When we returned, it was off to the kitchen. With the radio softly playing in the background, we watched as nutritionists mixed bananas, lettuce, apples, carrots and corn with dozens of animal-specific biscuits. They weren’t the warm and toasty buttermilk biscuits you may enjoy for breakfast, but chicken-nugget sized combinations of oats and grains lightly flavored with citrus.
Every animal has a personalized diet, designed by a team of zoo nutritionists. The diets account for personal tastes, whether the animal runs around a lot or remains stationary, as well as age and health. For example, one gorilla received a biscuit and greens along with a beet, onion, cucumber, melon and banana.
If you ever host a dinner party for the following zoo animals, here’s what you need to know:
For penguins: These flightless birds have a taste for seafood. They’d be happy with a variety of fish, krill or squid. And no need for silverware! It’s recommended that penguins be hand-fed.
For fruit bats: Don’t let their name deceive you. These guys are picky eaters. Depending on the crowd, you may be forced to serve fruit, nectar, pollen, insects, blood, small mammals, birds, lizards, frogs or fish. It’s best to make this one a pot luck.
For Asian small-clawed otters: You may be better off going to a steak house if you have these furry guys over. Minced beef, fish, hard-boiled eggs, and locally available shellfish and crabs should be provided. Though they may not mind a bit of dog or cat food.
Wondering what your local lion or zebra is eating? You can find more nutrition advice at the American Zoo Association Web site.
– Joseph Caputo